THE DICTATOR POSTER: The Audacity of Sacha Baron Cohen

Today, I veer from my typical attention to a/v materials to consider the key art (poster) for Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest film, The Dictator, in which he impersonates a Middle-Eastern dictator with the promotional savvy, indifference to taste and solicitation of controversy that we’ve come to expect from his performance art and filmmaking.

Let me begin with some observations:

The key art presents itself not as a movie poster but as a gilt framed portrait in the “great leader” representational mode. This is portraiture as propaganda, the story a familiar one: power, prestige, wisdom, permanence, glory.

There’s no film title. There’s no copy tagline. There’s no release date and there’s no credit block or cast run. The only identifying information is in the lower right corner, where the artist’s signature is normally to be found. Here, we read: / Summer 2012, followed by a barely legible Paramount Studio logo.

Nevertheless, many if not most American film goers and popular culture consumers will recognize Mr. Cohen, despite the full beard, opaque green sunglasses and Naval Officer’s uniform, complete with braided epaulettes, a chest full of medals, gem-encrusted stars and orders, and a commander’s cap. (Ironically, Wadiya seems to be a land-locked country.) They will have seen this persona most recently on the red carpet at the Oscars, where he spilled what he said were the ashes of recently deceased North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il on Ryan Seacrest, as part of a publicity stunt and promotional effort for his upcoming film. (It worked, whether to Mr. Seacrest’s consternation or with his tacit connivance. Will we ever know and does it matter?)

In the event viewers do not recognize Cohen or have not seen advance publicity about the movie, they are referred by the poster/portrait to the film’s website, a lampoon of what a sovereign website might look like, down to the choice of either English or Wadiyan language versions, featuring faux official photos, an approved history of Wadiya and an entirely invented alphabet and script. (Among other insensitivities to and stereotypes about the fictional population of Wadiya–and by extension, not a few of its real neighbors–this might be the most insulting.)

Of course the website is not representative of the nation so much as of its heroic leader, whose life, concerns and preferences inspires and organizes the content. L’etat, C’est Moi, presumably. (By the way, the web developers appear to have built delays and circularities into the site in order to make it more “realistic”–that is, frustrating, slow and suggestive of incompetence or underdevelopment.)

So, to recap:

This poster is not a poster, but a portrait.
The link is not to a movie, per se, but to an ersatz governmental website.
Wadiya is not a real country but a state of mind.
And yet, this is very much a promotional campaign, appealing to fans’ interest in stars (Mr. Cohen), story (the Dictator’s progress) and genre (a political mockumentary) and relying on their recourse to the digital sphere for further and essential information.

When one thinks of the comic genius of Mr. Cohen, words like presumption, fearlessness, audacity, and brash self-assertion come to mind. But there is a better one: “chutzpah”– Yiddish for “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible ‘guts,’ presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to.” (Leo Rosten:

    The Joys of Yiddish


Even Charlie Chaplin, one of the biggest stars of all time, included his name on the poster for THE GREAT DICTATOR, a 1940 film mocking Adolf Hitler, rather than assuming his impersonation would be self-evident. As with Chaplin’s film, Cohen’s Dictator is explicitly and significantly hostile to Jews (see the website for frequent reminders of the Wadiyan state’s official anti-Semitism), a quality that makes Cohen’s impersonation all the more vertiginous and unsettling. (One is reminded of Cohen’s character Bruno, who attempts to broker a Middle East peace settlement while dressed in Yeshiva student fetish costume.)


In this poster, Mr. Cohen in full disguise is fully confident that he’ll be recognized and that the promotional intent of this image will be understood, even, or especially, if the viewer has to follow the link to the Republic of Wadiya website and then click on the Youtube button to watch the official trailer. (On the website Calender, mention of the film and its release date are also indicated, although citizens of Wadiya are warned not to attend this propagandistic screed produced by Western, infidel enemies.)

Like Mr. Cohen’s interactive comedy, satire and performance art, the key art for the Dictator invites, nay demands, viewer engagement, interaction, work and maybe even discomfort. It’s a lot to ask of audiences, but then such presumption has served Mr. Cohen very well in the past.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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